Episode 22: How to Support Your Teen (+ Survive!) During Exams
LISTEN AND FOLLOW ON:
This in-depth conversation with 'Teen-Parenting Expert' Michelle Mitchell covers the wellbeing side of all things study and exams.
With finals approaching for many students, this can bring stress and pressure and it can be difficult for parents to know what to do or say to help.
In this episode, you will learn:
How to easily get your teen to communicate to you how they're going.
Why your teen's unique personality can be the key to their peak performance.
The one question that may reveal some surprising (and easy to help with!) answers.
What to let go, and when.
A better way to think about what 'your best' really means!
You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast episode 22. This week I have a very special episode for you - an interview with Michelle Mitchell.
Michelle is an award-winning speaker and best-selling parenting author. And in this episode she is going to drop a tonne of advice, experience and tips for anyone with a teen who often puts themselves under a lot of pressure in their study and is going to be talking specifically around the well being of teens who may be feeling the stress as we get to those finals and end of year exams.
With over 15 years in education as an award winning high school teacher, international external examiner and as a study coach I've helped thousands of students skyrocket their results and confidence and this podcast is where I share all my insights, tactics and tips with you the parent so you can help your hard-working teen get happy, smart and successful in their study AND have you both enjoy the journey along the way. This is the Parents of Hardworking teens Podcast.
Hello my VIP's! I have a very special podcast episode for you today. I have a very first guest on the show. Michelle Mitchell is an award-winning speaker and bestselling parenting author. She is highly sought after for her compassionate and grounded advice for parenting teens and this is what I really want to dive into today and why I invited Michelle onto the show. Because I feel like I have a lot of the tactics and strategy from the education and assessment point of view to help students with preventing, reducing or overcoming their stress and overwhelm in their study. But Michelle, having started her career as a teacher, had a much stronger passion and interest in the pastoral, well-being side of things and then transitioned from teaching over 20 years ago now. So a tonne of knowledge and experience here for her to share to found the service charity Youth Excel delivering life skills programmes and psychological services to young people and their family. And today is doing even more amazing things, many of which are going on right now I know so I really want to say a big thank you Michelle for taking the time to be here. Welcome to the show.
Michelle: I'm thrilled to be here, thank you for having me.
Katie: You are so welcome. I know that you have lots going on and lots of amazing projects and actually the thing that sparked me into inviting Michelle on the show was an email I read from Michelle just a couple of weeks ago. It was all around the stress and pressure that teenagers are facing today and particularly at the moment. You know we're getting into end of year exams, all of those finals so that is why I've invited Michelle on because she is definitely going to be able to give us some wisdom and some understanding as to what is going on there and how we can best support those teenagers along the way. Because I should say, I'm not a parent myself.
Michelle: So I think Katie, in that email I was talking to Y7 parents particularly just imploring them a little bit to set up not only the study habits but the right mindset right in grade 7. Because when we see kids leave high school here in Australia we literally are seeing them like almost collapse over the finish line! And they've used every ounce of energy and more. I'm seeing so many kids with fatigue viruses and just needing to take a year off. Not as a gap year to explore themselves but to recoup. And we really don't want them to expend themselves to that point and so that's my passion for this topic.
Katie: Absolutely. Anything we can get going early on to really set them up in being able to tackle everything that places them and do it in a proactive or positive way that really builds their resilience and the ability to deal with these things that are thrown at them. I know also, especially given the title of this podcast is Parents of Hardworking Teens, so many teenagers are putting themselves under that pressure and not necessarily in a bad way, they just want to do well they want to do their best. So what are some of the things that you see where students are either under that stress or pressure or where do you think that might be coming from?
Michelle: I think this is a really good place to start because for some kids they don't give a rip about exams. In fact, the mark on that exam or that assignment correlates in no way to the career that they want and then not assigning it to their self worth. But we're talking to families that potentially their child is recognising that there's a certain number, there's a certain grade they absolutely need in order to pursue the career they want to pursue in the way they want to pursue it. So there's lots of pathways and we all know that but there is that sort of streamline pathway to say they want to get into medicine or law or engineering or teaching. Something that definitely needs a degree and there is so much on the line for our kids in that moment, no matter what we tell them about their worth being bigger than that mark. Or there's so many other ways to get there. The truth is that they're going for it at that point, they've set themselves a goal and they're hoping to get it over the line.
Now it's those kids that I worry about the most because they're carrying that weight of that pressure and then the disappointment if it doesn't come across the way they hope it does.
Katie: What they make that mean for themselves whether it's for the future or about themselves. I completely agree and I actually spend a fair bit of time often reminding students and parents that some levels of stress are completely normal. And actually, in some situations it can be helpful at a certain level. So have you got any tips or advice on markers to look out for when things are like hey, this is all OK this is just part of the experience or when it is creeping up into more sort of detrimental harmful levels and how we can help maybe keep some of those things in check?
Michelle: Yeah, maybe the most valuable thing that I found, when working with one- on-one with Y11 and Y12 students particularly, especially in my mentoring days. I would say to them, give me a number. Because when we say to a teenager, how do you feel? How you going today? Or how's your study going? And they're really busy, you're inviting a conversation but those words take time and energy and they don't necessarily want to go through that whole process so I would recommend that parents say to kids, give me a number. 1 could be total crap! 10 could be amazing. And the moment they are under 5 or their number comes up under 5 then that's the time where we can step up a little bit more with some of the strategies we can talk about and lend a hand. Sometimes they look like they're floundering but they're just under a lot of pressure. And there's so much that's normal about that and they're saying to us, I've got it.
What I think is important is that they give us a number for their heart and their head and the head number is more the logistics (are you on top of things, time management and all this study stuff we learn at school). And they have mounds of this in school but then the heart is how they are emotionally feeling. Is there anything going on in your world outside of exams? That's like compounding stress and added problems. So I think heart and head numbers can be really helpful too.
Katie: I love that. I'm such a numbers person myself and I think it can be, like you said, it's even a challenge sometimes just to verbalise you know, well how are they thinking? Or how are they feeling? And just being able to apply a number to it really means that without feeling like they need to give a huge response and being able to, even to the students, realise the logistics (that head stuff) are sometimes interlinked and sometimes they can be quite different and covering both of those bases I think is great. Maybe the deadlines are in order but actually emotionally they're not in order.
Michelle: Or I'm just not sleeping or I've just had a fight with my best friend or I'm worried about not attending that party on the weekend 'cause I've gotta study.
Do you want a funny story? My son, he's an engineer now so he's 24, but I remember his final year of school and clearly the load was getting too much. He was a 5 out of 10 or 4 out of 10 at times and I'd be like, how are you? What can I do to support you? You know, as we try and load-bear for our kids we try and step in and say hey can I pick up some of the slack? How can I help? He gave me two things that would be helpful, listen to them, so gorgeous, so typical of our boys. Number 1: Can you not talk so much!
Number 2: Can you pack me a really good lunch everyday so I don't have to think about it. I made up a batch of lasagna and he was heating up lasagna in the common room at school. I was in charge of that and I felt helpful. It helped me I think, manage some of my nervous energy 'cause I could see he was really invested. They don't need our energy on top of their energy.
Katie: That's so true. And that's assigned to him every single day. That you've been thinking of him and like I said, it's something you can do that just gives that extra support in an emotional, and in that case physical way as well, which is kind of nice. And I know there's a couple of things that you mentioned there that I want to pull out. One of them was around that life balance. Are there any particular things that you've come across or seeing or like you said, experiences that you had on how we can help teenagers maintain that life balance? Especially, as we mentioned earlier, for those students who will have that tendency to want to study you know all hours 'cause they feel like it's never enough. Or want that particular number or grade for whatever reason they want it without, I think sometimes, it's tempting to just tell them to take a couple of hours off. So do you have any advice around that?
Michelle: Absolutely. My mind wanders to so many kids and how unique they are and I think self awareness is the key. I think in school they learn that this is the way that you study the best and this is how your brain works the best, but really our brains work the best when they are calm and we feel courageous. Because we're asking kids to take a risk during study time and so they have got to be able to dial in and say - how do I get my peak performance out of me at a set time? So 10 AM on Friday morning. And for them to do that they often haven't had enough like life experience to realise to conserve energy, to not burn out too quick and to be managing themselves in that lead up to things. So it's really important that we listen to what works for them. Some kids do cram well and then others like to be quite a way ahead.
I knew a boy who used to run before his exams. He wanted to do finance. You need really high marks. Very bright kid. But he used to get up 4:00 o'clock in the morning and go for a really hard run before an eight o'clock exam at uni. And it would work for him. So I think we really need to throw it back and listen to our kids but help them realise they'veI got to span this out and peak at a certain time. The second thing I learned from watching young people, especially through uni was this: What can I let go of? To the point of, when the pressure is really on and they have to choose between doing 4 assignments out of five or they have to choose between fulfilling 5 criteria instead of 6 criteria. And I've watched some kids leave off aspects of an assignment that were low grade, so 10% of their marks, because they knew the other aspects would get it over the line and they just had to make those hard decisions. And that's hard for a perfectionist kid to let go of completing an assignment well. But at the end of the day it just doesn't matter as long as they get the mark then get it done.
Katie: My face starts lighting up 'cause I'm like, yes, this is the exact stuff that I will help them with. Let's figure out which part is the stuff that's going to really matter and which doesn't really so that they can be more strategic about what they're doing, what they're choosing not to do and what will give the maximum payoff while still maintaining their sanity.
Michelle: It's even this idea that it's OK to let go and just say no. And it's OK to have priorities during that time. So in normal circumstances they might complete every criteria but during high pressure times they're able to make those calls and know when enough is enough for them. It might be worth mentioning here too when we talked about how every kid is so unique, some kids if they don't go out and socialise and let off a bit of steam during exam block they won't peak at the right time because they'll be low in the chemicals their brain needs to stay at its peak. Then other kids, the emotional energy of socialising in exam block tips them over the edge and they blow a fuse if they do it. So it's just little nuances like that I think we need to really drill into.
Katie: Yeah that's so true and I think that's where parents do know their own children best. And like you said, some students will really thrive on having that social time to decompress and enjoy that interaction and for other students that can add to the pressure or takes more energy out of them rather than refills their energy. Knowing what things are gonna help your teen and fill them up as opposed to deplete them is going to be really useful.
Michelle: It's all about them zoning into themselves as well. So this is a completely selfish few weeks. We all revolve around them and the more they are able to really be aware of what's making them tick in those times, the easier they will study as they go on. What tips me over the edge? What do I need? What don't I need? And giving them the opportunity to make those decisions and try things out.
Katie: What are some questions we could ask them? What's the way, like a little exercise they could do? Just a quick couple of things that don't identify themselves and that gives them some ownership over as well.
Michelle: Some of the practical questions we could ask is like, are you best in the morning or at night? And let's make sure that the house works for that. It's just saying to them, how does your body work? Are you better if you go for a run? And get those endorphins going. And it depends how much they want it too. It's like an athlete. How much do they want to push themselves? And some of these high performing kids are high performing in a lot of areas so they're using the skills they learn in sport and bringing it over to their exams. And vice versa.
Katie: I see that alot with students. That's where a lot of pressure on that time comes from. Because they've got a lot of other commitments going on as well.
Michelle: And they want to do it all but they can't do it all at once. So I think that's another real key conversation point at maybe when they're saying I'm level 5 we go, OK what do we let go of. It might be better quality with their work, it might be social things. It could be a range of things but what am I going to let go of right now.
Katie: I remember a saying "You can have it all but you can't have it all at the same time". That's such a helpful little mantra to hold onto.
Michelle: Sometimes they have multiple interests as well. And talented kids are stretching themselves in a lot of different ways and they often have the mentality that they've got to be excellent at all of them. And I think that is one mindset that we need to really keep challenging and also maybe whereas some kids need the mantras of you know, work hard, some other kids need it the opposite. That it's ok to let go.
Katie: I can definitely relate to that myself as well . I can totally see where that's coming from. We often talk a lot about the stress that students are under but as you mentioned earlier, the parents often end up feeling just as much stress and anxiety as their teens who are actually going through either the trials and tribulations with them or the stress of you know, because their teen wants to get those results then the parent just wants them to get them because they just want to have that feeling of success or pride or whatever else it is that's going on for them. So do you have any words of wisdom to help parents navigate this journey as well?
Michelle: If we can't let go of the outcome first, they will never be able to. And we carry a tone often times when we're supporting kids and it's almost like we put so much of ourselves on the line or that it's unhealthy for them. And I think we've got to keep reinforcing to ourselves that their journey is bigger than a moment. This is a life long journey and we've gotta detach from it emotionally a little bit. I see this a lot with parents. It's almost like the living through their kids or they don't want their kids to feel the pain and disappointment that comes when you work hard for something and you don't get there. I'm particularly thinking of one boy at the moment who tried multiple times to get into an internship and every time he went through this internship the whole family went into a little bit of stress and molly coddling a little bit too much and trying to be supportive but it was nervous energy. So I think we need to just be really mindful and just shift it off outcomes. They're gonna be OK.
Katie: I think that's it because I think for the parents, like every parent would tell me, look I don't mind what result they get. A phrase that I touched on quite a bit is this whole 'just do your best'. This is that whole thing that drives them working harder and harder and harder. Let's just say, what if that best isn't what the student hoped it would be? Then you have got to deal with the disappointment and it's never about the grade you know, parents know that the result is not what this is all about. It's not about a number or letter. It doesn't mean anything about your self worth or how good a person you are or even your later career opportunities. Like we mentioned right at the start, there are so many pathways. But it is because they feel attached to the emotion that their teen is going to experience as a result. Are they going to feel successful? Are they going to feel proud? Are they going to feel excited or are they going to feel disappointed or deflated? And that's the outcome that we're talking about here.
Michelle: And especially when we're putting so much into something. We're wanting something to fill us back up in return. And so when we put so much of ourselves into something we're sort of standing there with open hands and if nothing comes it's a dry feeling it's awful. But if there are kids who want to achieve things in life it's not the only time they're going to feel that. They're going to have a shot at a lot of things that don't come off and so we're talking about them taking risks and realising that sometimes they're gonna win, sometimes they're gonna lose. They're not always gonna stand on top of that mountain. And when parents say to me that they don't care about the results but their body language is telling the other, I think we don't realise sometimes how emotionally invested we are and how much we carry our kids stress.
Katie: I think really then, it is that what we're really saying is it's OK for them to feel that disappointment. If something doesn't go exactly to plan. What would you say to parents in terms of how do we help them get through that? Like, let's just say they do get it. They worked really hard and they do end up with the result that they are disappointed with. I know some students are going to be unhappy with an A-! What are some ways that parents can help in a meaningful way that still helps them move forwards in those sorts of moments?
Michelle: Language is really important. I think even saying to our kids 'just do your best', what they define as their best is a really interesting thing to unpack with a teenager. So I think our language leading up and how we communicate with our kids on the whole about their life and how they conduct themselves becomes really important. Not only are they not a number but I think we've got to really be honest with ourselves and say they're putting themselves out there to achieve something. Maybe we can keep the disappointment to that one area or that one section of their life rather than it defining who they are as a whole person. And I think that's where that subtle change in language comes in. They're disappointed about a result. They're disappointed about a particular outcome but they are not a disappointment.
Katie: And just to follow up - I can't help myself! If we avoid saying 'just do your best' are there any other things that you think are helpful to say to students who are maybe in their lead up to exams?
Michelle: Yes, absolutely! And I'll tell you why. Your best on one day is different than your best on another day and another day. So I gave my best today based on where I'm at. And I've really had to learn this at public speaking as well. Some days you're on fire and you're funny and your brain is sharp, you nail it. And then sometimes you feel like you walk away and it's a bit of a B standard and you're disappointed with yourself. One of the things I say to myself is that was my best for today, where I am and I'm a human being. And I'm gonna have those ups and downs.
Katie: I think that's excellent and can just apply across so many different situations. So Michelle, we have covered so many areas and I know there's so much helpful information and advice and experience and stories, we love a story. Is there anything that we haven't mentioned or haven't covered off on that you think would be useful to share.
Michelle: I think maybe just the use of technology during exam times and also the added drama that can come when they're taking on their friends pressures as well. And how real that is for teenagers and we've almost got to leave a bit of margin and buffer for that 'cause that's how teenagers are wired. I feel like it's an area of their life during exam time we kind of isolate it and make it about exams but their social life goes on. And if Mary's struggling because she's stressed out about maths tomorrow they carry a piece of that so yeah just being really conscious of that too and even asking kids, how are your friends? And just being interested in that side so you can help carry that burden with them as well.
Katie: That is really helpful, thank you so much for taking the time to share all your years of experience and your expertise. I really appreciate it. I know listeners will really appreciate it Michelle. If anyone wants to find out more about you and what you do where is the best place for them to go?
Michelle: My website and socials. I'm always on socials these days.
Michellemitchell.org and yeah I just try and put out as much free content on socials as I can with videos and blogs just to help parents along the way.
Katie: OK so anyone who's interested in going to find out more please head on over there. Thank you again Michelle. Have a wonderful week everyone. See you on the podcast next week.